The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stayed with a family in
Springfield Gardens while assembling Queens residents for the 1963 March on
Secretary of State Colin Powell was attending City College in the '50s when his
father bought a three-room bungalow for $17,500 on Elmira Avenue in Hollis
from a family that joined the white flight from the area. He and his wife,
Alma, celebrated their marriage with his family at the home.
At one time many blacks in Queens were slaves who worked on farms.
Famous black achievers and everyday folk from Queens have had an impact
beyond the borough's borders. Their stories - including those of jazz great
Louis Armstrong, groundbreaking athlete Jackie Robinson and Nobel Prize winner
Ralph Bunche - will be showcased in a Black History Month slide-lecture
on Feb. 23 at the Laurelton branch of the Queens Borough Public Library.
Jeff Gottlieb, president of the Central Queens Historical Society, said he
will discuss "the great African-Americans" whose names stand out, but won't
overlook the accomplishments of "the common people who formed the backbone of
Such as the little-known Mary Ann Shaw (1870-1905), a philanthropist and
the first black principal in the borough - at the Colored School in Flushing -
who donated money to help establish the Flushing Free Library, which later
became part of the Queens Borough Public Library.
And Gerald Norman, an immigrant from the island of Jamaica who also lived
in Flushing and was the first black teacher to work in a New York State high
school - Bryant High School, which later became Long Island City High School.
Gottlieb also will mention Elizabeth Cisco, a mother of six, "who gave a
great deal of time to the integration of schools in Jamaica in the early
1900s." Cisco and her husband, Samuel, refused to send their children to the
segregated "colored school."
More well known, of course, are sports and entertainment celebrities,
Sports legend Jackie Robinson, the first black baseball player in the major
leagues since the 19th century and Joe Louis, who was the world heavyweight
boxing champion from 1937 to 1949. Both lived in the Addisleigh Park section of
Big band and jazz legends Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie,
Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and others; James Brown, the "Godfather of
Soul," and vocalist Brook Benton all were Queens residents. Most also lived in
Addisleigh Park. Louis Armstrong, the great jazz musician, made his home in
Corona at 34-56 107th St. His restored house opened as a museum last year.
In politics, Kenneth Browne (1923-2000), a state assemblyman, was the first
black legislator from Queens. He lived on Henderson Avenue in Hollis. Guy R.
Brewer, another former state assemblyman and founder of the United Democratic
Club, had a street named after him in Jamaica.
Malcolm X - the son of Jamaican immigrants - and his wife, Betty, were
evicted from their home on 99th Street in East Elmhurst on Feb. 18, 1963, four
days after it was fire-bombed and three days before he was assassinated in
Queens also produced an African-American statesman: Ralph Bunche, the 1950
Nobel Peace Prize winner, was a Rosedale resident.
In the area of inventions, subway riders can thank inventor Granville Woods
(1856-1910) for the third rail as well as the automatic air brake used to slow
or stop trains. Although his formal education ended at age 10, Woods got more
than 60 patents on his creations. Many of the patents were sold to companies
such as General Electric, Westinghouse and Bell Telephone.
Woods is buried in St. Michael's Cemetery in East Elmhurst. "Fifty feet
away is Scott Joplin," the ragtime music composer, Gottlieb noted.
It was a child of freed black parents, Lewis Latimer (1848-1929), who
helped bring the electric light bulb into being. Latimer, who was an associate
of�Thomas Edison, light bulb inventor, bought a house in 1902 on Holly Avenue
in Flushing. Latimer opened his home as a gathering place for prominent civil
rights activists such as Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois.
Latimer taught himself to be a draftsman; improved carbon filaments in
incandescent lamps and invented the on-off switch for electric lights. He also
prepared Alexander Graham Bell's patent for the telephone.
Latimer's house was relocated to 34-41 137th St. in 1988 to save it from
the wrecking ball. The residence was restored in 1998 and opened to the public
Black Queens residents also distinguished themselves in war. Roscoe Brown,
one of the famous Tuskegee Airmen, lives in Whitestone. The Tuskegee Airmen
were fighter pilots who saw combat in North Africa and Italy during World War
II. Lee Archer, the "top gun" of the group, credited with shooting down 11
German fighter planes, was raised in Jamaica.
Current celebrities in the borough's black community are mostly in the
hip-hop world. Among them, LL Cool J and Russell Simmons, recording executive,
promoter and producer, both from Hollis.
Gottlieb's presentation also will touch on slavery. During the colonial and
precolonial periods, many blacks were slaves on Queens farms run by English
and Dutch colonists, he said. Many worked on the farms even after slavery was
abolished in New York State in 1827.
"Blacks, especially in Jamaica, were treated very poorly by their white
neighbors," Gottlieb said. During the 19th century, Wilson Rantus, a black
farmer in south Flushing, published a newspaper, The Anglo-African, and formed
an advocacy group. "He protested to authorities about blacks being beaten up,"
The Klu Klux Klan was active in the 1900s in Queens. A contingent marched
along Hillside Avenue from Richmond to Jamaica in a Memorial Day parade in 1927.
Queens residents helped Gottlieb with preparations for the slide show,
lending him old photographs, magazines and newspapers. He did much of his
research in the Long Island Room of the library's Central Branch on Merrick
Boulevard. But he said, "Some of the best tips I got were from Clarence Irving."
Clarence Irving Sr. is an unofficial historian of black history in
southeast Queens. The longtime St. Albans resident is the founder of the Black
American Heritage Foundation and the U.S. Postal Service's Black Heritage Stamp
There are more than 422,000 blacks among the two million people in Queens.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, blacks lived in every community, but most
congregated in Flushing and Jamaica, Gottlieb said.
In the 1960's and '70's when whites were moving out of Hollis, Laurelton,
Springfield Gardens, Cambria Heights and other southeast Queens communities,
blacks left Harlem and Brooklyn and moved into those neighborhoods. Many had
their origins in the South or the Caribbean and liked the small town atmosphere
of communities in Queens, according to Gottlieb.
Gottlieb, who is special assistant to State Assemb. Brian McLaughlin
(D-Flushing), said the Queens Historical Society is dedicated to "raising the
consciousness of the people of central Queens - Forest Hills, Rego Park, Kew
Gardens, Kew Gardens Hills and Jamaica - to the cultural and historical
richness in their communities."
Gottlieb's free lecture begins at 6:30 p.m. The Laurelton branch library is
at 134-26 225th St.